How to create a garden from scratch

By Katherine Musgrove, Garden Manager, RHS Garden Harlow Carr

Spring has sprung! It’s the perfect time to get outdoors and re-connect with your personal green haven. Gardens, of course, are years in the making – especially if you’re starting from scratch – but as any green-fingered enthusiast knows, the effort is well worth it.

I can barely comprehend the scale of the task that my 1950’s forerunners faced; the earlier spelling of ‘Harlow Car’ gives a clue to the garden’s underlying character: ‘car’ refers to a marshy wetland! When the Northern Horticultural Society leased the site in 1949, it was a relatively blank canvas of fields and unkempt woodland. Much has changed in the years since then, thanks to the vision and energy of successive garden teams who have crafted the landscape into the beautiful and inspiring Yorkshire garden it is today.

If you’re starting out with your own bare plot of land, it can have its advantages: it’s certainly easier to put your own stamp on it as you’re starting from scratch rather than inheriting the vision of how a garden should look from a previous home owner. That said, it can also be quite daunting, especially if you don’t know where to start, so here are a few pointers that I hope will get you going:

The first important decision to make should be deciding what you want from your garden and how you want to use it: is it to be somewhere relaxing at the end of a long day with a nice glass of something chilled; does it need to be formal or informal, wildlife friendly; do you want a productive area for growing fruit and vegetables. These thoughts will help steer you in the direction you want to go.

Watch where the sun rises and sets and what aspects this will give you; it’s no use trying to grow sun-loving plants on a chilly north facing side of your garden.

Is your site windy or not? Which way does the prevailing wind come from (the way the wind blows most often)? Do you need to incorporate a wind break? You could use fencing or put down a hedge.

Define your boundaries: Fencing isn’t so aesthetically pleasing; but you can always put a wire structure in front of it to support climbers or espaliered apples which will immediately soften it. Remember to leave some room behind for annual maintenance.

Hedging meanwhile can provide a great habitat for birds to shelter and roost. If you are looking at a formal garden style then you could do a lot worse than use beautiful dark green yew which is evergreen, slow growing and provides a good backdrop for showcasing other plants in front of it; at RHS Garden Harlow Carr we have some great examples on the Winter Walk. It can also be clipped really sharply and gives fine angled edges. An informal hedge could be something that has frothy blossoms in spring, again around the kitchen garden here at Harlow Carr we have a crab apple hedge which has the most delightful candyfloss blossoms in spring, and in the winter it sports delectable little crab apples, adored by blackbirds.

Another important consideration is pH, the level of acidity or alkalinity in the soil. Purchasing a pH kit, which are easy to use, will tell you this. Take several samples from all areas of the garden and dig down a little to get a true measure. We have very acidic soil here and acid-loving plants do well: camellia, pieris, rhododendrons, Meconopsis and heathers have been very successful. Our maples always have glorious autumn colours and this is helped by them being planted on acid soils. The soil at Harlow Carr – as well as being very acidic – is very heavy clay. In our unimproved areas you could probably make some small pots with it! Our big Main Borders have had lots of organic matter and grit worked into them to open up the structure of the soil. This helps with drainage as clay soils can provide a pan as the particles of clay are so fine they can stop water draining away, causing sumping (water not draining away) which is not good for roots as most plants don’t like to sit in puddles of water. So if you have very heavy clay soil you may need to work in a lot of organic matter and grit to lighten it up. Clay soil isn’t always a bad thing as it can hold nutrients well and roses positively love clay soils. Sandy soils are another matter: they don’t hold water very much at all and are very free draining. In this situation the solution is the same: dig in lots of organic matter to help retain moisture.

If you have a sandy soil and a sunny site and don’t particularly want a lawn, you could always make a gravel garden and have Mediterranean plants such as cistus, lavenders, rudbeckias and soft wavy grasses such as stipa tenussima that live happily on poor soils.

Have you space for a small tree? We have got plenty of examples here at Harlow Carr: slow growing Prunus serrula, with its lovely polished chestnut bark and pink blossoms, or some of the small species Sorbus such as Sorbus vilmorinii with creamy-white flowers in spring and pink blush white berries in autumn.

Whatever you decide – make your garden your own special place for you to enjoy.

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